in response to the recent discussion of church and state in america, joi ito wrote
As we Shintos like to say, you can put your god over there next to our other gods. this has inspired a good deal of discussion of japan as an alternative to american fundamentalist religious views. but i don't think "tolerant" is an accurate description of japanese religion. japanese have killed people in religiously-motivated wars not altogether different from the christian-motivated wars and the "tolerance" of modern japanese religious beliefs is rooted in secular, not religious, beliefs.
my senior thesis (PDF link) topic began as a vague "homosexuality in japan". before narrowing it down significantly to lesbian suicide between the world wars, i gathered a general overview of homosexuality in japanese history. there are only a dozen or so books dealing with this topic, and too little of the known history has made its way online. one of the few online summaries is the poorly named "Japanese History For Gay Men", which briefly discusses the early accounts of homosexuality in japan, first among buddhists (a popular myth even suggests homosexuality was "imported" into japan from china by a single buddhist monk), and then samurai:
Since the samurai was seriously influenced of Buddhism or they served for the aristocrats, they inherited priests' custom as it was, and spread the custom further.
after the presumption that homosexuality is a "custom" that can be "spread", the most surprising aspect of this history is that buddhism seriously influenced samurai, as buddhists are most widely known as pacifists, and samurai as warriors. of course these are terribly oversimplified representations of these two groups. samurai culture involved much more than war, and buddhists have at many times and places been directly involved in wars. japanese buddhists have been no exception.
as japan's indigenous religion, shinto provided a natural tool for promoting nationalism in japan. in "RELIGIOUS FREEDOM PROBLEMS IN JAPAN", tokihisa sumimoto writes:
Japan embarked on a war of aggression against Asian countries in 1937 and against the United States and their allies 1941. The wartime regime was built upon the foundation of pure religious statism. This was made possible by elevating State Shinto to the position of the "only religion" which provided a spiritual basis for Japanese ultranationalism. The emperor was vested with both sovereignty and divinity, and the entire country was forcibly converted. All other religions were either persecuted or subordinated to the cult of emperor worship.
but buddhists also contributed to the militarist fervor. the book zen at war (which i haven't read) provides a detailed account of how zen buddism in particular helped fuel japan's advance toward world war two. because of all of this, i was surprised to read jonathon delacour's recent suggestion that
Whatever the faults of the Japanese...religious bigotry isn't high on the list.
while the history of japanese religion contained such religious intolerance, modern japanese religion contains secular tolerance. an often repeated description of modern japanese religion goes something like this: "everyone in japan is born shinto, marries christian, and dies buddhist". you would never see a survey of japanese asking them to pick their "religion" because nearly everyone has "religions". but this isn't really religious tolerance in the sense that japanese buddhists don't tolerate japanese shintos. japanese buddhists are japanese shintos. the japanese can't really be suggested as an ideal of religious tolerance without also suggesting polytheism as an ideal of religious belief. jonathon writes of his friend natsuko:
She wasn't actually saying that the Japanese don't have strongly held beliefs since that clearly isn't true. if he means beliefs in general, he's right; japanese have strongly held beliefs. but i also think it's true that japanese (generally) don't have strongly held religious beliefs to the extent americans do. for example, it's clear that japanese don't have christian weddings so often because they strongly believe in the religious significance of a christian wedding. the reason japanese commonly choose christian weddings is that the ritual of a christian wedding is seen as more "modern". a wedding signifies something new, whereas birth and death naturally emphasize family roots, so are more commonly performed with traditional (shinto and buddhist) rituals. an article on "christian" weddings in japan (notice the quotation marks around christian) quotes a bride on her decision of wedding style:
"If we had thought about our parents, we would have had a Japanese style ceremony but we are young, we wanted a more casual style," said Yuko
i don't mean to suggest the rest of the world doesn't have a lot to learn from japanese religious views. but if we ever hope to solve the problems of religious intolerance, i think it's important to recognize that they aren't unique to america. and for most believers, "switch to shinto" isn't a solution.